This was the case for the website for an organization to which I belong. In fact, it happened twice, and we got very lucky each time.
I’ll review what happened to us, how I recovered, and what every website owner should do to prepare for exactly this scenario.
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The site story
The organization centers around a large email discussion list. There’s an associated website, built and maintained by volunteers, that includes photos, a list FAQ, and other information related to the list. It’s not an uncommon use of a website to back up and maintain information for an online email community.
I volunteered to take on-site maintenance, including the transition from an old site, to a new, partially completed replacement.
Unfortunately, as part of the transition, which included moving to a new web host, we lost contact with the person who had been doing the work up to that point and the information to access the old site.
It was hosted on a small and fortunately responsive ISP. We were able to contact them and convince them that we were the folks responsible for the site. They then set up a redirection so that visitors trying to get to the old site reached the new site instead. In short, we were very lucky because the ISP was willing to help us out.
The transition to the new site went well, initially. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, there was a bandwidth cap in place. Only so much traffic (views of the website’s pages) would be allowed before the site would be disabled for a time. With the redirection from the old site, we reached that cap in under two weeks.
We were fortunate once again. The webmaster who I was replacing had prepared and shared with the organization’s administration important things like password, accounts, and access information … but not all of it worked. Enough of it did work that I was able to move the new site to a new location – one of my own servers, where I have total control and no bandwidth cap.
In short, losing your webmaster could be a serious problem. Depending on many things, the worst-case scenario could be you lose access to your own website with little (if any) hope of retrieving it.
I got lucky. Twice. You might not.
If you have someone else who’s in charge of managing your website, you must have a contingency plan. I recommend that at a minimum it includes:
- The name of the registrar (if you have your own domain name) and the account name and password that would allow you to make changes to that domain, such as pointing it at a different server or even transferring it to another registrar.
- The name of your hosting provider. Ideally, that would include telling your hosting provider of backup contacts in addition to the webmaster.
- Accounts and passwords to your server’s management console. Not all sites have this, but ultimately, a management console is a common approach that web hosting providers offer to individuals so that they can control the configuration of their server or their part of it.
- The root or administrator account name and password, if you have a dedicated server.
- Account names and passwords to the appropriate login and ftp accounts used to manage the server or upload content to it.
- Account names and passwords to any applications. For example, the administration accounts used for blogs, forums, or other tools that have been installed on your server.
- An alternate contact. In many cases, your webmaster may have a trusted individual that, while not involved in your site, may be available to grant access or assist in an emergency.
You may have a couple of reactions to that list:
All that information … those are the keys to my kingdom! If someone got all that, they could hack me to pieces!
Realize that you’re already relying on your webmaster to keep this same information safe already, but you’ll absolutely have to do the same. It doesn’t matter how you do it – written on a note you keep in a safe, kept in a spreadsheet in an encrypted filesystem, or something else entirely – you do want to keep this sensitive information secure.
But no matter how you do it, it’s critical that more than one person have it.
I wouldn’t know what to do with this information!
That doesn’t matter.
If you’re not familiar with website stuff yourself, you’ll be looking for someone who is. Once you find them, they’ll need this information in order to help.
A sudden or unplanned transition is always rocky, but with a little careful up-front planning, very often a total disaster can be averted.